It was just over a year ago that I found myself on a train traveling from Milan to Turin in the hopes of conducting some preliminary field research on a possible book project about this northern Italian city. Speeding through the Italian countryside I had just over an hour to relax and let myself gaze out the window. As always, I had a book with me, but it sat there unopened as I scanned the passing fields and farmlands. There is something about traveling by train that is infinitely more relaxing than almost any other mode of travel. My mid-morning train was not busy and I had an entire quad of seats to myself. A family of four was seated next to me. The mother and the father (I presume that they were married and that the two teenagers were their children) were talking quietly with one another while their two children were busy on their cell phones. It’s at times like this, spying on other people’s children, on other families, when I miss my own the most. At that moment, just about twenty minutes outside of Milan, I started really missing my family and longing to be back home. So here I was, on this train in Italy, but mentally I was back in the United States with my family. Yet, when I am home, all I can think about is the next trip, and mentally I am always searching for that new adventure, in someplace I have never been. I look up street addresses on Google, I read about restaurants and bars, museums, bookstores (always bookstores), so much so that even when I am at my computer at home I’m somewhere else. Is this what Odysseus felt on his return to Ithaca, even after all those years? The longing to be someplace else is sometimes so strong that I find myself unable to concentrate on anything I happen to be doing at that moment. It’s a restlessness that I’ve felt since childhood, and it with me nearly every minute of every day.
For me travel has always been about the departure, the planning and the moments leading up to the trip. It’s about the expectations, the movement itself. Traveling by train gives one a sense of being somewhere else unlike any other mode of transportation. There isn’t the sardine can-like feel of air travel, and traveling by car or bus always comes with the stop and go of traffic. Time doesn’t stop on a train, it moves, and stutters its way through the country-side and from station to station. One stops for brief moments at out of the way places on one’s way to a bigger city with a bigger station. At those brief stops there is the short hustle and bustle of activity, of people waiting to get on or off the train. Once things settle down we set off again slowly, and soon we are back in the countryside.
But travel by train is still travel, and unless one is traveling first class all of the time, the actual experience of travel can be anything but pleasant. Some years before, I climbed aboard my first train in Italy, going from Milano Centrale to Bergamo, about an hour away. I didn’t realize that before climbing on board one had to have one’s ticket stamped by a small green machine standing at the entranceway to the platform. Once on board the conductor asked for my ticket. After examining the ticket for a few moments he asked me to step out into the hall. He informed me in his halting English (by now my understanding of Italian, always marginal at best, had failed completely) that I had committed an error and that I had two choices: I could pay him a small fine, or pay a much bigger fine and accompany him to station headquarters in Bergamo. At this point I started to think that I was being taken, and that all he was after was a bribe. I was also highly conscience of the fact that I had left all my luggage, including my passport, in the compartment. All at once I found myself in a Paul Bowles story. Because I didn’t want to push my luck and challenge him on his own turf, and wanting to get back to my luggage as soon as I could, I paid my fine. He wrote me out a receipt, warned me that in the future I should pay attention to proper protocols, and walked away, leaving me swaying there in between train compartments. Later that evening, I looked into railway travel in Italy on the hotel’s computer and realized that he was correct, and that I had neglected to follow protocol. I was lucky, I guess. Milan still has those little green machines, but I purchased my tickets for my next trip before hand and had them on my cell phone. The conductor glanced at my phone and motioned me onto the train: simple, direct, and without incident.
Several years ago I read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and was captivated. I found someone else who felt the same way I did about train travel. Although Theroux said it in his book much better than I ever could, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. I still find that book one of the best commentaries on traveling by train ever written. It was also Theroux who showed me that it is much more interesting to write about what goes wrong on a trip than what goes right. Many years later, when I met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found him to be just as charming as his books.
When we travel, especially alone, we discover things about ourselves that cannot be revealed when traveling with others. Traveling alone gives one time and space to think, to reflect upon the actuality of travel. For me, travel allows me to slip inside my own mind without a responsibility for others. Sitting on that train, moving through space, I was able to exist in many places simultaneously. Perhaps this is why my two great passions in life are reading and travel: both give one the gift of being somewhere else.